Dr. Aki Horii recalls growing up in the East Lillooet internment camp

Dr. Aki Horii’s life changed forever when he was only 10 years.

His family was living in Vancouver in those days, just a block and a half from Lord Strathcona Elementary School About half the students were second-generation Japanese-Canadians and known as Nisei (born in Canada to immigrant parents).

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After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941, “we all had to quit school. About 630 Nisei students left the school and half the school was empty,” he recalled last week. The homes and businesses of Canadians of Japanese heritage were confiscated by the Canadian government (Dr. Horii’s father lost his fishing boat). Worse was to come

In the spring of 1942, the Horii family moved to a “self-supporting centre” in East Lillooet. which meant families were able to stay together, rather than fathers being forced to leave the families in government internment camps while they were put to work building roads in other locations.

Self-supporting centres, also called relocation centres. were located in East Lillooet, Minto, Bridge River and McGillivray Falls and at Christina Lake near Grand Forks. They housed selected middle and upper-class families and others not deemed to be as much of a threat to public safety.

There were approximately 22,000 Japanese-Canadians evacuated from coastal areas of B.C. Sixty per cent of those 22,000 people were Canadian-born.

Dr. Horii recounted his childhood experiences in East Lillooet before a full house at the Miyazaki House Monday, Oct. 23.

In an interview with the News the following morning, he acknowledged that the disruption of his childhood and his family’s life made him angry. He said his parents’ generation was more accepting of the upheaval, but after retiring as a family physician in 2009. “I’m getting things off my chest.” Now he gives presentations in schools and communities about the treatment of Japanese-Canadians and the hardships they endured.

“I tell children that racism and discrimination can pop up anywhere,” he explained. “It’s a catharsis for me to talk about my pent-up feelings and I’m honoured to be here these two days – to talk to students and talk to citizens of Lillooet.”

People were “poor in East Lillooet – barely surviving,” he remembers.

The menfolk of the new community came to the area first, in March and April 1942. They began by building raw lumber shacks for their families but wood shrank and the winter winds whistled through. Tar paper came later.

“When I think about internment, East Lillooet must have been one of the worst places. When I talked to people who lived in Bridge River and Minto, they had comfortable houses,.electricity and running water,” Dr Horii said. “We had no drinking water. A family by name of Tsuyuki got a truck and they put a wooden tank on the back of the truck and we had to buy water by the barrel. The ground was very fertile, and we used  a pumping system from the Fraser River. Each family had a plot of land maybe five or  six feet wide from the road all the way to the sand dunes by the river. We grew a lot of vegetables, watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, corn and potatoes. It was fir survival not for sale. It had to last through the winter. Houses were built on pilings so there was nothing underneath. Most people cut a hole in the floor and dug that hard clay soil and that was a little refrigeration area. All the vegetables that can be kept through the winter white radishes, potatoes, fruit, apples were under the house.”

He said families had no idea how long the war would last. The fathers had no jobs so Mr. Tsuyuki started a co-operative growing tomatoes. The grew the vegetables at the Mercer Ranch, the Pugh Ranch, Russell’s Ranch in town, and the Fountain Ranch eight miles north of Lillooet.

“They had hundreds of acres under cultivation and shipped the produce to the Royal City Cannery in New Westminster.” Later they built their own cannery at the top of Station Hill where the pizza place stands. Then they built a food-packing plant next door. Aki Horii got a job in the cannery making tomato and apple boxes, later  he got a job inspecting food in the packing plant.

Initially, there was no contact between the internees on one side of the Fraser River and the townsfolk on the other.

The children needed to go to school so the men in the East Lillooet community built a two-room school near the south side of the village. There were no qualified teachers to teach classes to anyone who had finished high school, including longtime Lillooet resident Sumi Tanaka, was pressed into service to teach.

Later, relations improved between the two communities and the Japanese-Canadian students were permitted to attend school in town – “two miles north to the bridge by bicycle and two miles to the town. Even in the coldest days of winter we did it,” Dr. Horii remembers.

Sports helped to break the ice between the two communities. The Japanese-Canadian Asahi baseball team was a champion-calibre squad before the war. Some of the players wound up in East Lillooet and, with support from a friendly RCMP officer, they began to play softball with Lillooet’s ball team.

Lillooet’s school in those days was a one-room schoolhouse housing four grades. In 1946, Ernie Hayes became the principal. He taught Grades 10, 11 and 12 and four subjects-  English, French, Math and Science.

“I realize now what a teacher he was,” exclaims Dr. Horii. “He left in 1949 and he was a brilliant educator. He became the Dean of Education and Dean of Graduate Studies at the the University of Portland. He was the one who encouraged me to go to UBC in 1949.

The Second World War ended in August 1945 after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People may assume that Japanese-Canadians went back to the coast and resumed their lives.

That didn’t happen.

Dr. Horii explains: “Last night in my presentation, I talked about the differences between the US and Canada, Japanese-American legal scholars challenged the US federal government, saying the government had violated the U S Constitution. They won their case and Japanese-Americans returned to the Pacific Coast before the the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima..Japanese-Canadians had no similar constitutional protection and they were not granted freedom of movement until Apr. 1, 1949 when they were allowed to finally re-enter the ‘protected zone’ along the Pacific Coast.

 “I tell people that here in Canada, racist politicians convinced (Prime Minister) Mackenzie King to keep us enemy aliens,” says Dr. Horii.

Could what happened to him and his family ever happen again?

“In Canada, I doubt it,” he replies. “I end my talks to students by talking about the apology made by Prime Minister Mulroney in the House of Commons on Sept. 12, 1988 where he publicly apologized for the injustice done to Japanese-Canadians and says he hopes this sort of thing never, ever happend again.:

But he acknowledges he is concerned about the current divisive “us versus them” political climate in the United States.

“Until you have the right to vote, you cannot do anything. We’re not second-class citizens but people need the right to vote.”

Dr. Horii says the war and internment had a lasting impact on Japanese-Canadians in another way.

“Our parents’ generation expected us to marry Japanese. But in the third generation, my children/s generation, over 90 per  cent are intermarried. What the war did was de-centralize the Japanese-Canadian community from Steveston and Vancouver to right across Canada.”

He cites his own family as an example. Some of his grandchildren are half-Japanese and half Caucasian. Others are half-Chinese and half-Japanese.

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